A friend of mine recently said on a podcast that there are angry atheists because we aren’t being heard. It was one of those things that I knew, but until she voiced it had not thought about concretely. It does explain a great deal about why the books of the New Atheists sell as much as they do. It does explain why the organizations of atheists are growing faster than they had in the past. It explains a great deal about why the pushback is so strong among both the religious and the agnostic and the “moderates” among us, those who just want everyone to get along and not argue about the question of religion.
Morality and ethics have long been considered to be the domain of religious thought, and reason too cold to be able to make decisions and judgments on issues of life, death and how we should treat each other. Religion, which is supposed to teach about “compassion” is the inheritor of Universal Truth about the dignity of life. Except for the fact that there are as many religions as there are grains of sand on the beach, and although each have their own Universal Truth they are in conflict over what that Truth is. And all of the enlightened theology is not going to help, because in the end that leads to arguments over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.
The New Atheists may not be spreading any new enlightenment on the issue of the existence of God, but what they are passing along is the narrowing of the necessity of the existence of a Creator, or even a Spinoza-type God, one who is just fabric of space-time and whose intelligence is not enlightening towards humans nor a causal actor in our lives and world. They are attacking the claims of theology, that God is a causal actor with the discoveries in science of how nature works independently and how mind works independently of the supernatural entities that are said to be the directors of the play. They are pushing back against the “givens” of religion, and people don’t like that very much.
Religion is supposed to be there, and it is supposed to be a part of a child’s background and education in order for them to be fully developed and actualized patriotic citizens. When the New Atheists attack this “given” then we are angry and unreasonable and I would say being “politically correct.” Well, given that the term politically correct is a rather vague term that only means “something that I can dismiss out of hand without examining it,” that it is something that people use to be dismissive and disdainful and allows them to be asses without being open to criticism. Anybody that criticizes a person who has already played the anti-pc card is then by definition “pc.”
Religion is taught to be benign, but even in its most benign form is harmful. It teaches reliance on unreliable sources. The concept of a “higher power” in the 12 steps of support groups, is commonly assumed to be God. One person explained to me that they used their secular humanism as a “higher power,” reaching for powerlessness and absolution from themselves because they couldn’t control who they were. I have trouble understanding this, but most importantly, I also take issue with the idea that we don’t have the responsibility for our actions if we just lay the blame at our addictions and our help from outside of us. (This is not to say that I don’t think people should get help when they need it, but I believe that they should find professional help with tested tools.)
There are so many things wrong with resting on, and humbling oneself to a creator because it lessens rather than exalts our humanness. As people, we should be learning that communities and individuals are our strengths for survival. We shouldn’t let ourselves be consumed with pleasing something that we can only “know” because we have desires taught to us that we should rely on the faithful certainty of the unknowable.
This brings me to Russell Blackford’s essay in The Philosopher’s Magazine. Blackford is defending the New Atheists in his article “Voicing Our Disbelief.,” and touches on the unreliability of religion to provide effective guidance:
Religious teachings promise us much. They offer a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives and morally superior conduct, and such extraordinary (if illusory) benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being, liberation from earthly attachments, or a blissful form of personal immortality. It all sounds good, and if some of these teachings are rationally warranted it would be well to discover which. At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be well to know that. I take it, then, that there is an overwhelming case for rational examination of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, we ought to explore just how far.
But it might appear that scrutiny of religion’s claims is not an urgent task, at least not if the scrutiny is conducted in public, and especially not in modern, apparently secular, Western democracies. Hasn’t religiosity become rather unobtrusive since the bad old days when heretics were burned? So why is there any need to engage in strong, publicly prominent criticism of religious teachings, the organisations that promote them, or the leaders of those organisations? Perhaps rational critiques of religion should be available somewhere – maybe in peer-reviewed philosophy journals – but no great effort should be made to debunk religion in popular books, magazine or newspaper articles, media appearances, and so on. Or so it might be argued. In that case, it might be said, the New Atheism is unnecessary, and perhaps even undesirable. Why offend people, why stir up distrust and division, as the Four Horsemen seem to do?
I disagree. In the 1970s, or even the 1990s, it was possible to think religion had been declawed, and that further challenges to religious philosophies, institutions, and leaders were unnecessary. On this view, all the hard work had been done, and religion was withering away after the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, Darwin, and the social iconoclasm of the 1960s. Against that background, it became taboo to criticise religion in the public sphere; it was widely assumed that religion was retreating, in any event, and didn’t need to be fought anymore. Attacks on people’s “deeply-held beliefs” even smacked a little of cultural imperialism.
What we, as atheists share, is a disbelief in the existence of God and further find that in disbelieving we are disenfranchized by societies which teach that religion is a good and necessary force. We try to find verifiability in the source of the teachings, and find none or at least nothing recognizable. The New Atheists attack the notion that there are external supernatural forces that can explain what is happening in nature, a Designer and a reworking of Paley’s argument of a Watchmaker. If we are enthralled and indebted to the Watchmaker then we had better pay heed.
The atheists recognize that there is no debt to repay to a Creator, but a respect to be paid to the very real forces of Nature. Nature is impersonal, but awesome nonetheless. We also recognize that in the business of sharing rules and laws for society, and in freedoms to be able to follow our own directions we are indebted to society and to ourselves.
When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into socially-accepted moral norms, let alone into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power? When these questions are asked publicly, even with a degree of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.
But, it’s not healthy. It challenges the order, it challenges the question and it challenges the assumption and for that the New Atheists must be quashed, dismissed and if we get the chance drawn and quartered. We should keep atheism to the classrooms and to the cigar rooms where it is safe from offending people. It shouldn’t be discussed except to be dismissed. Russell, when he announced this article at his own blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. he also pointed to a site which totally misconstrued the article;
It’s politics, politics, politics, folks. Boilerplate politics at that.
If there was any doubt that New Atheism is merely a progressive political movement this essay puts that to rest.
The empty post quite deliberately doesn’t get the point of what he is trying to say, and we shouldn’t be surprised of that given that it is an Intelligent Design site. The post, while emptry of discussion, is attached by the remoras of the usual sorts of comments from people who have an extreme persecution complex and somehow think that Muslims get off scot-free from the New Atheists. Examples:
At first I was surprised by an atheist using Islamic terrorism in a bad context (they usually make excuses for Islam while reserving their outrage for Christianity and Judaism). Then I realized that it was only being used as a way to paint all religious people as “terrorists”.
It’s the wave of the future. The world has already begun legislating an end to Christianity – either by Shariah law or by liberal “diversity” and “anti-hate” legislation.
I really can’t figure out what’s up with these guys. I mean, are they really just getting off on the emotional content of their statements?
What is the best strategy for dealing with these new atheists? I kinda think we should just ignore them, totally. Or maybe just laugh whenever someone talks about their rationality. I don’t know, what do the rest of you think?
They hate religion because they hate God. They don’t understand that that hatred (which is spiritually based – inspired by the enemy of God) is what’s behind their irrational opinions. They are like-minded pawns in a conflict far bigger than they are aware.
The NA’s reaction to 9-11 – stepping up their paranoid attacks on Christianity because they’re wetting their pants over Islam – is almost humorous in its absurdity. One might have hoped that atheists, who have no religion to insert into their politics, might have been a voice of reason towards policy in dealing with the jihadis. Had they not been so cowardly, the response just might have been a lot more effective and much less deadly to the relatively innocent.
The NAs have no power outside the popular appeal (mostly morbid) of pointless culture war diversions. Being cowards by nature, they are unlikely ever to inspire enough people in the real world to ever gain any kind of workable power. So ignoring them outside their chosen pointless (and non-threatening) battleground is a good prescription.
Though they do evoke quite a lot of laughter here and there, and I’m a firm believer in the adage that laughter is the best medicine. Maybe they should be vying for a place on those new health care exchanges?…
Do you see? My friend was right. Not being heard. These commenters have no clues, because they have no ears and only mouths. And these are the people that scientists need to assure that religion and science can mix okay.
Atheists are angry because no matter how they try to use reason and patient logic, they end up running into the wall of impolitic distaste for the fact that they exist.